The Lake of the Woods

Write an essay discussing whether you think a knowledge of major events in American history including American foreign policy is important in interpreting In the Lake of the Woods.

            The United States of America was born out of a very difficult and violent past. American revolutionary history laid the foundations of the state and greatly influenced later generations. From very early the United States believed it had a destiny to lead the world. Thomas Jefferson; although not heavily involved in foreign policy, his ideas shaped the thinking of politicians and government policy since the declaration of independence. In this essay I hope to show that a working Knowledge and understanding American history and American foreign policy is crucial to furthering our interpretation of Tim O Brien’s ‘In the Lake of the Woods’.

Nearing the end of the 19th century Frederick Turner presented a paper stating the significance of the frontier to American history. The frontier was a line that marked the westward expansion of the nation. The pushing back of the frontier symbolized settlement conquest and nation building. The role of the frontier was understood according to Turner as ‘the frontier is the meeting place between savagery and civilization’. Frederick worked out based on a mathematical calculation that the frontier had disappeared. Now that the Frontier had closed, it brought to an end the first period in American history. By the end of the 19th century the frontier had become ‘civilized.’ However did that mean the American mission of ‘civilizing’ disappeared with it? This 19th century rhetoric of ‘civilizing’ travelled in to the early half of the 20th century. It was only in the late 20th century that the vision of ‘The Great Frontier’ was challenged by historical truths. Great acts of violence, loss of life and savagery were uncovered. Despite this the myth of ‘The frontier’ was just as important as the reality. It was accepted to be true. Ideas culture and belief sprung from these myths. This begs the question. How is America going to manage its foreign policy into the future?

Like many of 20th and 21st century American literature Tim O Brien’s ‘In the Lake of the Woods’ is a politically motivated novel. ‘In the lake of the Woods’ is an example of O’Brien’s recurring Vietnam War theme. At the heart of the story is a brutal recreation of My Lai massacre. This event was not fiction but in fact well documented in official U.S. Army hearings. John Wade’s role in the massacre has deeply scarred him as an individual and as a public figure for life. Similarly the Vietnam War severely damaged the image of the United States in the international community. The memory and lessons of Vietnam remain deeply imbedded in U.S collective memory right up until the present day. When Bush spoke of invading Iraq in 2003 the words ‘no more Vietnams’ entered into many a public debate.  This is not surprising when one considers it was a war which dominated four presidential terms, it was a war in which over two million Vietnamese were killed, and over 58,000 American soldiers were killed with thousands more injured[2]. Hundreds of books have been written on the Vietnam War and it remains a hotly debated topic.

From the above brief history we can see that it is America’s legacy to use violence to settle disputes. ‘In the lake of the woods is a story which addresses this violence. The book contemplates the effect of the violence on one’s soul, John wade’s experiences has a profound and devastating effect upon him. In many ways he is representative of America. Just as America went in to Vietnam to fight for credibility and security, John went to fight for his Country and for his freedom. However Vietnam was to leave its mark upon both irrevocably staining them forever. In many ways John Wade is a symbol for many American veterans. The effects violence had upon him mirror what many veterans experience today.

‘In the Lake of the woods’ can be read as an allegory for the Vietnam War. While working at desk job, John managed to erase his involvement with the Company. This act of erasing is an extremely poignant one. John was able to destroy the written record however he was not able to destroy his memories. These memories which haunt John via the use of flashbacks. The novel reveals, throughout the course of the story, the dilemma John faced about admitting what had happened or trying to hide it. Hide it he does, so successfully that it goes undiscovered for twenty years. Similarly, for over a year the U.S authorities tried to conceal the facts around the My Lai Massacre. However the truth emerged via several different media and government sources almost like real life flashbacks the My Lai massacre re-entered into American consciousness. This caused great stress and embarrassment for America and its veterans who had often returned home to cheers and parades now they suffered jeers and protest. ‘At bottom, this is a tale about the moral effects of suppressing a true story, about the abuse of history, about what happens to you when you pretend there is no history.’ This blocking out of the past is both a recurring theme in the novel and in U.S foreign policy. John cannot move past his experiences in Vietnam and in reality neither can the U.S government. One historian notes that Vietnam has shaped all policy decisions since. While John and the government were able to destroy or conceal the past they were unable to forget, unable to escape.

There seems to be an undeniable link between Vietnam and the nickname John has been given by the men of Charlie Company. O’ Brien himself recalls ” Vietnam a place with secret trap-doors and tunnels and underground chambers populated by various spooks and goblins, a place where magic was everyone’s hobby and where elaborate props were always on hand–exploding boxes and secret chambers and numerous devices of levitation–you could fly here, you could make other people fly.” In the book itself, quotes such as ‘He pulled a lighted cigar from his ear. He transformed a pear into an orange. He displayed an ordinary military radio and whispered a few words and made their village disappear. There was a trick to it, which involved artillery and white phosphorous, but the overall effect was spectacular’These vital clues further the link between the sorcerer and violence. However Wade’s real trick is mirrored in a piece of political magic, making the lessons of Vietnam vanish, hiding them, putting them in the nether regions of history. Equally America does not seem to want to remember its past. Seemingly as Richard Slotkin would argue that the real ‘Founding Fathers’ tore violently a nation from the implacable and opulent wilderness killing for a simple desire of land. Instead of learning the lessons the U.S wishes only to look forward on to the next conflict.

Wade does not acknowledge the past and by refusing to do so he is mentally damaged. For Richard Slotkin violence is at the heart of America. He argues that America regenerates itself through violence. However does the violence John Wade experience regenerate him? Or has the events in Vietnam isolated John so much that he cannot even reveal his secrets to his wife. John and Kathy intentionally choose ‘in the lake of the woods’ setting for its isolation from the outside world, which is desirable to them in their quest to forget the stress and emotion of the failed election. However even in this isolated environment John cannot escape the horrors of Vietnam.The fact remains, he is so ashamed of what happened over there that he feels it is necessary to erase his involvement with Charlie Company from the records.

O Brien cleverly made John Wade a politician. O’ Brien does not blame Kathy death on the politician. However he merely insinuates it, by not revealing the mystery surrounding her death O’ Brien is allowing the reader to come to his/her own conclusion. Although infuriating while reading the book one can draw parallels in the way that O Brien is asking us to question what or who to blame for the Vietnam tragedy. Was it the soldiers who killed innocent civilians? Was it the politicians who sent them there? Or was it the public who for the early years supported the war in Vietnam.

The true magic in this novel is the work of the author, O’Brien. Behind paradoxically beautiful prose and brutal content, this novel is a masterful meditation on war and the effects of violence upon oneself. O’Brien keeps secrets, only revealing the plot, themes, and meaning behind the story in staggered pieces. The reader is in a constant state of wondering about the nature of humans, war, and reality itself. As a history student who has spent three years studying U.S foreign policy I believe my knowledge of Vietnam and American history has greatly enhanced my understanding of the book. However O’ Brien has mastered the novel in such a way that I cannot perceive that a lack of knowledge about U.S history would diminish the effect of this harrowing novel.


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